The State of the Union can’t be easy for John McCain. If anything could make him more ornery than he’s already predisposed to being, it would be sitting in the chamber as one of hundreds of lawmakers, applauding and listening with rapt attention to the man who stole the presidency from him with his charm and youth and vigor. But there was one moment last night when McCain looked practically giddy.
Look at him! That smile is maybe only partially derisive! “I was so pleased,” he told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America earlier today, still beaming.
It isn’t merely his opposition to earmarks that has filled McCain with such glee — it’s the satisfaction of Obama, at long last, proving him right. During the 2008 presidential campaign, in stump speeches around the country, in interviews and debates, McCain was the one repeatedly vowing to veto each and every bill that contained earmarks. “I will make them famous,” he would say of Congress’s pork addicts, “and you will know their names.”
Obama wasn’t on board with McCain’s earmark crusade. In each of their three debates, when McCain inevitably repeated his veto promise, Obama would pay lip service to the wastefulness and corrupting nature of earmarks before downplaying their overall importance.
“Now, Senator McCain talks a lot about earmarks,” Obama said in a typical response during the final presidential debate on October 15, 2008. “That’s one of the centerpieces of his campaign. Earmarks account for 0.5 percent of the total federal budget. There’s no doubt that the system needs reform and there are a lot of screwy things that we end up spending money on, and they need to be eliminated. But it’s not going to solve the problem.”
Once he got into office, Obama continued to maintain an “it’s complicated” relationship with earmarks. He wanted to change the process, but in his view, doing away with them outright was an unwarranted overcorrection. On March 11, 2009, while calling for Congress to enact earmark reforms, Obama declared, “Done right, earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts, and that’s why I’ve opposed their outright elimination.”
Apparently, Obama has now decided that earmarks are neither too inconsequential nor too useful to ban. Sure, his veto threat is probably just a superficial political calculation meant to appeal to a spending-wary nation and not a shift necessarily based on some newfound appreciation for the substantive merits of such a policy. But that hardly matters. Young, brash, know-it-all Obama, long dismissive of McCain’s across-the-board earmark ban, has capitulated. McCain isn’t gloating, at least not publicly — he may have danced a jig in private last night — but if he wants to do a little basking, he has every right to.